Romania, we should hang out more often! I mean that personally, as in I should let more of the darkly puckish Eastern European nation’s beautifully bleak and defiantly subversive cinema into my life. And I mean that societally, as in all of the world’s nations, and maybe Americans in particular, would do well to learn from Romania’s struggles for civil rights over the past century and more. To dive deeply into its fight against oppression ranging from press censorship to anti-intellectualism to a woman’s right to freedom over he own body (unforgettably examined in 2007’s masterfully unnerving black market abortion drama 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days). And I don’t just mean that in the dry academic sense of comparing our own recent authoritarian woes with the unthinkable ones they have endured. I mean we owe it to ourselves to draw something emotionally and spiritually from Romania’s experiences. There is something raucously inspiring about the art they make in response to hypocrisy and oppression. There is nothing treacly or even all that optimistic about it, except that it reveals the heart of a population determined to survive. Films like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Radu Jude’s timely cherry bomb Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn aren’t really in the business of looking for silver linings to governmental apathy and national trauma, but they do carry a proud sense of resilience to them. Their power comes from their willingness to pay unvarnished witness to corruption and cruelty and their unwillingness to try to make the best of it. These are things that have happened and, in many cases, are still happening and the only best that can be made of it is to simply tell the truth about it. In a society that has, at various times, tried to silence the artist, imprison its thinkers, and bend reason and science to the whims of the powerful, the Romanians have made cinema that moans as ominously as a death metal song but also holds up a punk rocker’s middle finger to decades and decades of state repression, indifference to poverty, and deeply ingrained misogyny. And I’m not saying that Romania’s history is literally a one-to-one with America (the particularly vicious Ceausescu regime that lasted from 1965 to 1989 started nominally as a socialist state before quickly turning craven, greedy, and despotic) or that our own law enforcement problems are at the same degree as those of the Ceausescu Securitate disappearing and brutalizing dissenters. I’m just saying, when a country has lived through wave after wave of authoritarianism and managed to distill that horrific experience into volumes of aspirationally rebellious, vivaciously angry art, we should consider knocking at their bedroom door (don’t let the Black Flag stickers and the blood red “Go Away” stickers scare you away) and picking their brains. For anyone dealing with their own petty, bullshit demagogues, Romania is plainly a nation worth listening to. They know a thing or two sticking it to cheap, mean-spirited tyrants and they happen to do it in a way that is acidically funny and cool as Hell!
While Rade Jude’s subversive, righteously pissed off Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn has a nominal plot, its energies are so restless and digressive that said plot feel more like a single narrative strand in an anthology stretching back centuries. The invasions of privacy that our protagonist Emi (Katia Pascariu, blessed with a face that does not suffer fools) endures are just one more aggravating entry in a thick leather-bound tome titled “How To Stifle Your Citizens”. The central premise is that Emi, a middle-school teacher in Bucharest, makes a sex tape at home with her husband that, due to various human errors at the laptop repair shop, ends up being uploaded to the Internet. And, while it only ends up on an adults-only site, that does not matter to the parents of her class after two children find the video and decide to watch it on school grounds. Now Emi will have to sit through an excruciating hearing with her superior and the parents of her class in order to defend her own right to a private life and, more pressingly, her right to keep her job. We do not see business of that hearing (a high-energy symphony of morons that manages to feel both like Bunuel and a town hall meeting in South Park) until the last thrid of the 106-minute film. The first third is just a day in the life of Emi, as she runs errands around a congested and drably commercial Bucharest. The middle portion is a Godard-like series of short vignettes (sometimes just consisting of a single, static image) packaged as a a kind of Romanian cultural dictionary. Framed as a series of definitions for basic words like “Christmas”, “children”, and “bookshelf”, each one is a critical, often sorrowful window into Romania’s tortured history. It ruminates on the nation’s abuses toward its citizens, the regressive ways women have been treated, its small but damning relationship to the Holocaust, the value of art and history, and Romania’s place in the larger context of a globalized consumer society. This second chapter, which made me think of both the Post Secret postcard project and Van Halen’s “Right Now” music video, may be the most polarizing segment. I have seen the odd critique refer to it as indulgent or like something from a student thesis. Personally, I loved it for how it opens Emi’s smaller satire of bureaucracy and privacy invasions into a much bigger conversation about authoritarianism, capitalism, sexism, xenophobia, propaganda, and systemic abuse. It opens up the present Romanian moment (and global moment) and allows the patterns of centuries past to flood in until they are one and the same. Bad Luck Banging is not the kind of story to settle down and focus. It is a delightful and horrifying anti-establishment pinata, already leaking Tootsie Rolls before the first stick hits it. It is less straight narrative than an unruly underground punk zine. And it is thrillingly alive for how much timely critique it fits into its reasonably modest runtime. It’s an avante garde scream in the face of decrepitude, incompetence, bureaucratic perversion and toxic bullshit. And it’s the kind of art this weary world could all do with a whole lot more of.
Bad Luck Banging is not just a reminder of the need for bold, abrasive works of art but a sharp attack on the kind of complacent society that tosses the artist and the individual’s voice aside or, maybe worse, drowns them out. After its dryly funny sex tape epilogue (routinely interrupted by questions from forgetful mother-in-laws and rowdy children), the film gets down to its conceptually daring first chapter, which conists of nothing but our put-upon heroine, Emi, running errands around the supermarkets, intersections, apartment blocks, cafes, pharmacies and mini-malls of Bucharest. We catch snippets of dialogue in this first of three parts, enough to understand how the sex tape has been discovered and how that error has jeapordized Emi’s teaching position at a middle school. Mostly, however, the camera seems deeply disinterested in Emi or any other Romanian citizen. It never waits with human subjects for any longer than it takes to catch the gist of what they are saying. Sometimes that’s no more than a sentence or two. What the camera does seem curious about is the signage, bric-a-brac and detritus of Romania’s consumer society. Bad Luck Banging‘s first chapter is brazenly ugly. It lingers on billboards and strip mall marquees and garish pink displays for Paw Patrol toys. The camera lets Emi wander off behind buses and into crowds like she is its neglected child. The lens will let her walk right out of the frame so it can linger over a decaying collage of bumper stickers on some sidewalk utility box. I was puzzled and put off the first time I watched Emi in a wide shot with all dialogue lost under the din of car horns. And then it happened again and again and my eyes lit up as I became aware of Bad Luck Banging‘s brazen, bitter attitude. I suddenly recognized how standoffish and outputting it was being and I beamed. It felt angrier than anything I’d seen in a long, long time. It’s a film that is always up to something and it strikes a razor balance between dour realism and pissed off snark. It’s about living in a society where you constantly feel like you are lost in the supermarket. It’s a dark note passed on to any nation or people that feels like their society pays them no regard whatsoever. To anyone who ever believed their government would starve them or work the life out of them before it allowed business to slow down one iota. And it’s about a society too driven by its bottom line to have any space for culture and art. Here there are only crany parents unloading children into the nearest multiplex. To put an exclamation point on its thesis, a group of young adults at a food court discuss how the Japanese students forced into kamikaze missions were the ones pursuing degrees in the arts and humanities. The future scientists and businessmen were spared. That’s what happens when a nation only values what is economically beneficial. It’s a biting observation later undercut when we see the local cinema is shuttered. No one in this bustling Romanian commercial center will even be getting this film’s message. Nobody here will even be able to see Bad Luck Banging. In the words of the Talking Heads, we ain’t got time for that now.
Like certain other nations we could name, Bad Luck Banging is taking deadly aim at a Romania that has often economically trampled its people, while also taking an oppressive interest in their morality and personal lives when it suited the interests of those in power. It has been particularly brutal to its women, from the horrifically restrictive laws against abortion during the Ceausescu regime (an effort to bolster Romania’s economy by increasing the fertility rate) to the prevalence of shockingly repugnant attitutdes regarding justifiable rape (a substantial percentage believe it to be just when a woman so much as agrees to come to a man’s house) to the double standards about sex that Emi encounters at her school hearing. The cruel paradox is that Emi can disappear into the consumerist horde for a moment but she is also always being watched. Her country does not care for her but it watches her and all its female subjects with the hawklike focus of an abusive husband. Bad Luck Banging is about the hypocrisy of a nation that really doesn’t care about its women one bit but is also psychotically interested in what they are doing with their own bodies. It’s about living with a government that tells you to get lost but also not to leave town. It might need you for something when it’s good and ready. And it at least wants to make sure you don’t expose its children (who it has no qualms about showing nationalistic propaganda and state violence) anything that might scar them. Heaven forbid that! Xenophobia and war songs are okay. Blow jobs are absolutely out of the question, lest their innocent souls become perverted by such a concept. And of course, the real perversion is always power and its whims. It so often seems to be the most loudly moralistic of a society that want to discuss so-called deviant behavior. At the hearing, a self-righteous mother insists they all watch the controversial sex tape again jsut to make sure veryone knows exactly what they are there to discuss. The men all agree instantly and move closer to the computer screen, the better to educate themselves on this pressing matter of morality.
What the three disparate segments of Bad Luck Banging (neorealist capitalism travelogue, avant garde essay film and frantic courtroom satire) have in common is the wearing down of human beings to the nub by the things society has chosen to value above them: the economy, conservative propriety, homogeneity, war, patriarchy. Bad Luck Banging is a film so filled with ideas that it’s easier to define it in terms of negative space. By what tiny amount of space for individuality and freedom remain once you account for all the impersonal forces and pedagogical buillshit whirling around it. That tiny sliver of room that hasn’t been boxed out and suppressed is the space left for human beings. It feels no larger than a utility closet and it is the cramped space from which Puiu’s indignant masterwork caterwauls and shrieks. And all Bad Luck Banging‘s puckish technique and rebellious spirit is a way of gathering the courage to confront everything this society does to control people and make them feel spiritually small. It is made with the hope that enough of that courage might start a blaze; might help people to oppose their myriad abusers. One of the dictionary pieces in the second section references the legend of Medusa and how Jason used his mother’s shield as a mirror to look upon the gorgon’s terrible visage without being turned to stone. Cinema, this film explains, is that same reflective shield, enabling us to look upon the injustices and horrors of the world without becoming petrified by them. This observation is the film’s mission statement and a handy summation of what makes great satire like this so important. Bad Luck Banging sees a whole lot of societal evil, from the soul-sucking banality of commercial sprawl to misogyny and xenophobic violence, but it left me feeling elated. It has a rich sense of gallows humor and it laughs from the belly like a fearless Viking berserker. It is the laugh of a warrior ready to lay waste to every bigot, sexist, and coward in its vicinity. And it hopes that laughter is contagious.
We had the usual host of superheroes in 2021, many of whom were very familiar and a few who were not. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise, but Bad Luck Banging does end by blowing a deliciously cross little kiss to superhero cinema. It makes sense that they would do this, partly because the film is such a counter-cultural snarl against all things monocultural. If Paw Patrol and crowded AMC megaplexes are going to get flak, leaving Marvel and its ilk out of the blast radius would just feel like a missed opportunity. This is the type of film that knows it could never get invited to the big movie malls, but why not play a little dress up just for the Hell of it?
Crashing parties is fun! It also makes sense because I think Bad Luck Banging is quite a heroic work in its own right. The hero we need more than the hero we deserve and all that. While most of our superheroes these days fight under the banner of an ethically dubious (at best) mega-corporation, Bad Luck Banging is the kind of film actually fighting for rights in need of defending. The right to bodily autonomy and pleasure and privacy. The right to a space that exists for people and not just for people’s money. The right to scream in the face of sanitization and so-called good taste. May the homophobes, despots, sexists, heartless capitalists, and religious hypocrites quake at the approach of Captain Romania! She is fierce, foul and fun. Her shiny shield repels bullshit. Tell these curs that Romania’s own homemade Lasso of Truth will be wrapped around them shortly. We shall be free. And glorious, goofy smut will rain from the skies!